With the help of receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard, WSU senior River Cracraft has rebounded from a couple of tough luck years and is hoping for a huge senior season
The summer before River Cracraft’s senior year at Santa Margarita (Calif.) High, he and his good friend and teammate Ryan Wolpin went out to Boise State’s football camp hoping to get on Broncos head coach Chris Petersen’s radar.
Even though Cracraft and Wolpin fell in love with Boise State that day, neither player managed to come away from the Broncos’ camp with a scholarship offer. Life had different plans for the Santa Margarita teammates, who have been friends since sixth grade and have stayed close in the years since they graduated from high school.
But when Washington State faces off against Boise State on Saturday, Cracraft and Wolpin will both be on the blue turf at Albertson’s Stadium, hoping once again, to make an impression – under different circumstances this time.
“I’m just looking forward to playing him and seeing him. It’ll be the first time we see each other on the field in a game since high school,” Wolpin said.
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The two friends took very different paths to get to the same field this Saturday night.
Wolpin, a 5-foot-8, 189-pound running back, ended up signing with FCS Northern Colorado out of high school. He redshirted a year, then had a change of heart and gave up his football scholarship to walk-on at Boise State in 2014.
His motivation? That football camp he attended with Cracraft in June 2012, and a lifelong desire to play FBS football.
“I was a Boise State fan before I came to the camp, but when River and I came to the camp together, I just fell in love with the culture and the program,” said Wolpin, a redshirt junior who played in all 13 games last season as a running back and on special teams and now backs up another Santa Margarita alum, the Broncos’ feature back Jeremy McNichols.
River caught Petersen’s eye at the Broncos’ football camp he attended, says his mother Tracy Cracraft.
According to Tracy, Petersen told River at the time that he would offer the receiver a scholarship under one condition: River had to improve his grades.
“Petersen said, ‘Go take these two summer school classes, get an A in them, and you can walk right into our locker room,’” Tracy Cracraft said, adding that River’s GPA at the time was probably right below a 2.8.
Unfortunately for Boise State and fortunately for the Cougs, Petersen never got the chance to make good on his promise to River because a couple of weeks after the Cracrafts returned from Boise, Idaho, WSU assistant coach Jim Mastro stopped by Santa Margarita High and offered River a scholarship.
River ultimately picked WSU over offers from Nevada and UNLV. His mother said Boise State swooped in to offer River a scholarship a couple of weeks before Signing Day, but her son never wavered in his commitment to the Cougs.
Now a WSU senior and a four-year starter, Cracraft has become a reliable mainstay in the Cougars’ Air Raid offense.
He started 10 games as a freshman in 2013, finishing with 46 receptions for 614 yards to earn All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors. Cracraft delivered results again the following year, catching 66 balls for 771 yards and eight touchdowns, but was hampered by a stress fracture in his foot that forced him to miss three games.
Cracraft recovered fully and went into his junior year on the preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List.
The 6-foot, 200-pound inside receiver once again got off to a productive start, catching the game-winning touchdown at Rutgers that gave WSU a 37-34 win and helped the Cougars rebound from a season-opening loss to Portland State.
A consistent playmaker for WSU, Cracraft led the Cougs with eight receptions for 102 yards against Arizona on Oct. 24 and was averaging five catches per game before bad luck struck and he sustained another stress fracture, this time in his opposite foot.
The injury forced Cracraft to miss three games though he managed to return in time to help the Cougars beat Miami in the Sun Bowl.
But it also exerted a mental toll on the receiver that extended through this spring because after having stress fractures in consecutive seasons, it took Cracraft months to condition himself to trust his feet again.
“I played timid in the spring and it didn’t work out,” Cracraft said. “In the spring, you could see I was running around nervous – not about playing football – but just about my foot. Mentally it was a tough hill to climb.”
JaMarcus Shephard, WSU’s new inside receivers coach, was instrumental in helping Cracraft regain full confidence in his physical abilities.
Shephard joined the staff in January this year and quickly identified Cracraft as one of the Cougs’ big weapons at inside receiver. His task, he decided, was to make Cracraft a more creative route runner and a more aggressive blocker.
By nature, Cracraft is an industrious, meticulous worker who executes directions to the letter and runs exact, precise routes.
“What you give him, that’s what he’s gonna do,” Shephard said.
But that can sometimes be a double-edged sword.
“I’ve been working with him on route running technique and understanding that football is not a square. It’s fluid,” Shephard said. “Just because we draw straight lines on the board, that doesn’t mean that the straight line is all we end up doing.
“He’s worked a lot at understanding when it’s appropriate to deviate a little.”
In the best way possible, Shephard has also coaxed a mean streak out of Cracraft, who’s generally quiet and affable, with an even temperament and gentle nature.
But Shephard’s emphatic cries of “Be a bully, River! Be a bully,” were a regular sound on the practice field this spring as he exhorted Cracraft to become a more savage blocker.
“Not that River is a bad blocker by any stretch of the imagination,” Shephard said. “But I want him to lead the group in terms of the physicality and toughness I want the receivers to show, and I want it to show up on film.
“I want him to lead the way because the guy who leads the way with catching should also lead the way with blocking.”
Cracraft has really taken to Shephard’s coaching.
“I like it when he says that ‘bully’ stuff because he’s just trying to get me to be who I can be,” Cracraft said. “I think the energy he brings to the table right now is very positive and very much what we need. It seems like a kick in the butt.”
Cracraft’s senior season is off to a solid start. He had five receptions for 41 yards in the Cougars’ season opening defeat to Eastern Washington last weekend and will start his 30th career game for WSU against Boise State this weekend.
His game-winning touchdown catch against Rutgers last season was arguably one of the most significant plays of 2015 because it gave WSU its first victory of the year and got the Cougars on their winning track.
Could history repeat itself this weekend, as the Cougs go into Boise as 12-point underdogs, and 0-1 on the season?